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Can Big Data Stop Ebola?

As the headlines around the world continue to focus on the spreading Ebola health crisis, how can technology help? Effective answers must take advantage of recent advances in big data.

by / October 26, 2014
(Frederick A. Murphy/CDC)

Big Data

Credit: Shutterstock/Novelo

How can Ebola be stopped in West Africa? What steps should be taken in the U.S. to protect the public and stop the spread of the disease, while continuing to encourage doctors and nurses to volunteer to travel to countries that desperately need help? What steps can governments take to coordinate the needed response? How can the wealth of data that we have be used to end the health emergency?

These are just a few of the questions being asked regarding Ebola. So can science and technology come to the rescue?

There is certainly a race to find an Ebola vaccine:

“A vaccine is critical because the truth is we just don’t know what is going to happen,” says Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust and a veteran of several epidemic scares, including the 2003 Sars outbreak and the wave of bird flu that swept south-east Asia in 2005. “I’m very much hoping that we will be able to bring this epidemic under control using classic public health containment measures, but if those measures fail then we need an alternative strategy.”

That strategy is now the responsibility of researchers at laboratories in Britain, Canada, the U.S. and Mali, where scientists are in a race to develop vaccines that could be shipped to west Africa as early as December, with more doses to follow next year if trials demonstrate that they are safe and effective.... 

There are also numerous efforts to use technology to answer vital questions and contain the spread of Ebola. Consider these headlines:

BBC News: Ebola: Can big data analytics help contain its spread?

The Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa has now claimed more than 4,000 lives.

While emergency response teams, medical charities and non-governmental organizations struggle to contain the virus, could big data analytics help? A growing number of data scientists believe so….

Washington Post: Silicon Valley must join the Ebola battle before it becomes a matter of survival:

Mark Zuckerberg recently announced a donation of $25 million to the Centers for Disease Control Foundation to help fight Ebola.  He noted that the Ebola epidemic has infected 8,400 people so far and could infect one million people or more if not addressed immediately.

Zuckerberg’s involvement is an important step forward for the technology industry, and with a bit of luck, this disaster will be averted. But it is a prelude to a future in which humanity is so tightly connected that local epidemics break out frequently and spread globally within hours — and become pandemics. In addition to old diseases such as Ebola, there will be new, human inventions…. How technology is helping fight Ebola:

The Ebola scare may turn out to be one of health care technology’s important trial runs, given the sheer number of apps, mapping tools, collaboration platforms and even robots that have been recruited for duty during the six-week-old crisis.

The electronic healthcare record system, for one, a core technology of the Obama administration’s plan to set up a data-driven health care system, is being promoted as a key epidemiological tool in the effort to screen potential Ebola carriers, according to a report in Health Data Management….

And while it is clear that actions are required for people, process and technology to stop the spread of the disease, writers at Wired Magazine point to process as being the most vital element currently.

Technology has driven our economy and made our country powerful, but tech alone is proving to be insufficient to stop the spread of Ebola. The case of Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian who had contact with an ebola patient four days before travel to the U.S., shows just how much the mundane world of process matters….

Ebola is a tragic reminder of the power of the process. Hopefully, technology will come to the rescue with a vaccine, but in the meantime, success in controlling ebola will come from the everyday, sometimes-numbing tasks that are just as critical anywhere else in our lives.

Quick Health Crisis Status Report

A survey of global headlines during the last weekend in October 2014 reveals a mix of good and bad news concerning Ebola. Sadly, this rollercoaster ride seems to be more on the negative side right now. A new quarantine is the hottest development from The Washington Post: N.Y., N.J., Illinois to impose new Ebola quarantine rules:

Craig Spencer crisscrossed New York City in the days after he returned from treating Ebola patients in West Africa — riding the subway, going for a three-mile run, grabbing coffee on the High Line, bowling in Brooklyn.

And while the 33-year-old doctor notified authorities when he developed a fever and was quickly isolated at Bellevue Hospital Center, his own Ebola diagnosis prompted the governors of New York and New Jersey on Friday to impose a mandatory 21-day quarantine for medical workers returning from the countries hit hardest by the epidemic. Illinois later in the day imposed similar restrictions....

These two videos help provide more details on the recent good and bad events regarding this top story:

This is longer press conference offers many more specifics:


Missed Chances, Recent Successes and New Opportunities Using Big Data

Some researchers believe we could have stopped Ebola earlier if we had listened to the data.  

…Computational epidemiologists were among those who foresaw the crisis to come. Even the earliest forecasts of epidemic were dire. Multiple models in early August showed explosive growth with the potential for a long emergency. But the models were not enough to spur the international community into action, due in part to a failure of collective imagination. It was hard to believe that the outbreak would grow so large. By October, it was obvious that the early models were correct but it was too late….

At the same time, there has been plenty of good news not widely reported in the USA. According to in Australia, Nigeria was declared Ebola-free using some simple health techniques and use of data to track those infected.

...Doctors who survived Ebola in Nigeria credited heavy doses of fluids with saving their lives as the World Health Organization declared the country Ebola-free on Monday, a rare victory in the battle against the disease that is ravaging West Africa.

In the end, Nigeria — the most populous country in Africa, with 160 million people — had just 20 cases, including eight deaths, a lower death rate than the 70 per cent seen elsewhere across the stricken region.

Officials are crediting strong tracking and isolation of people exposed to the virus, and aggressive rehydration of infected patients to counter the effects of vomiting, diarrhea and other symptoms....

While it is clear that technology alone will not resolve this situation, there are numerous ways that big data can help fight Ebola. The Economist Magazine describes ways that mobile phone records can provide an invaluable tool, if they were made available. 

When people make mobile-phone calls, the network generates a call data record (CDR) containing such information as the phone numbers of the caller and receiver, the time of the call and the tower that handled it—which gives a rough indication of the device’s location. This information provides researchers with an insight into mobility patterns.

Until recently the standard way to model the spread of a disease relied on extrapolating trends from census data and surveys. CDRs, by contrast, are empirical, immediate and updated in real time. You do not have to guess where people will flee to or move. Researchers have used them to map malaria outbreaks in Kenya and Namibia and to monitor the public response to government health warnings during Mexico’s swine-flu epidemic in 2009. Models of population movements during a cholera outbreak in Haiti following the earthquake in 2010 used CDRs and provided the best estimates of where aid was most needed....

However, many people worry about the privacy implications for such a move. Could this open up other uses of data that the public will not condone?


This Forbes article offers important lessons from Nigeria and other African nations that have successfully stopped the spread of the disease. It is clear that an effective communication strategy by all levels of government is essential. The media also plays a key role in keeping the public calm and well-informed on appropriate steps.

Nevertheless, the role of big data tools have been, and will be, key to future success in fighting the spread of disease. I also really like this big data summary from Reliefweb:

…The same kind of technology that helps marketers deliver targeted ads and suggest music or films could be useful in the fight against communicable diseases like Ebola.

"I think big data has a huge potential to help fight not only Ebola, but other disease outbreaks," said Marisa Eisenberg, a mathematical epidemiologist at the University of Michigan who has used data models to study other outbreaks, like the cholera epidemic in Haiti.

Eisenberg said it is possible to get better information by analyzing Twitter messages, airline data, emergency calls and other available health data….

No doubt technology tools alone cannot cure Ebola. We need actions in the areas of people, process and technology. And we need to use big data analytic tools in new ways to help.  

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Dan Lohrmann Chief Security Officer & Chief Strategist at Security Mentor Inc.

Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.

During his distinguished career, he has served global organizations in the public and private sectors in a variety of executive leadership capacities, receiving numerous national awards including: CSO of the Year, Public Official of the Year and Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leader.
Lohrmann led Michigan government’s cybersecurity and technology infrastructure teams from May 2002 to August 2014, including enterprisewide Chief Security Officer (CSO), Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) roles in Michigan.

He currently serves as the Chief Security Officer (CSO) and Chief Strategist for Security Mentor Inc. He is leading the development and implementation of Security Mentor’s industry-leading cyber training, consulting and workshops for end users, managers and executives in the public and private sectors. He has advised senior leaders at the White House, National Governors Association (NGA), National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO), U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), federal, state and local government agencies, Fortune 500 companies, small businesses and nonprofit institutions.

He has more than 30 years of experience in the computer industry, beginning his career with the National Security Agency. He worked for three years in England as a senior network engineer for Lockheed Martin (formerly Loral Aerospace) and for four years as a technical director for ManTech International in a US/UK military facility.

Lohrmann is the author of two books: Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web and BYOD for You: The Guide to Bring Your Own Device to Work. He has been a keynote speaker at global security and technology conferences from South Africa to Dubai and from Washington, D.C., to Moscow.

He holds a master's degree in computer science (CS) from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and a bachelor's degree in CS from Valparaiso University in Indiana.

Follow Lohrmann on Twitter at: @govcso

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